Roy and Maggie Alderdice travel over from South Africa to take on the Lands End to John O’Groats Skedaddle Cycling Tour
The decision to take up the challenge to cycle from Lands End to John O’Groats was made shortly after I turned 60 in May 2010. Maggie and I had often talked about doing a long touring ride and in fact even considered riding across America.
Although semi retired, we had to work around this time constraints, and the Le Jog suited us perfectly as it was a two week ride, plus we could visit our daughter in York after the ride.
I first heard about Saddle Skedaddle from a friend of mine from the UK who travels a lot and has cycled in many countries. We researched the ride as much as we could but to be honest, we did not expect it to be so tough, but then it was a challenge so no regrets!
Maggie and I are both in our 60’s and have been cycling for 12 years on a regular basis and have ridden in many local races together. We have ridden the biggest timed race in the world – The CapeArgus in South Africa a number of times where there are 35000 entries and I have also ridden from Pietermaritzburg to Cape Town a distance of 2,020kms over 15 days. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate that ride at 6 for difficulty and 8.5 for the Le Jog. Obviously the weather played a major part in the cycling tour in the UK.
The experience we gained from completing the Le Jog cannot really be described and when we look at the map of the UKwe still cannot believe we did it. We rode the whole way together, we suffered together and we learnt a lot about ourselves and how marvellous the body is in adapting.
The support from the guides from Saddle Skedaddle was excellent and they certainly treated us well. We are looking forward to more rides inEurope with them but Lands End to John O’Groats will remain in our memories as the one to do if you want a real challenge.
I wrote a daily diary of this tour (that will form the basis of our book) to keep folks informed as to where we were and how we were getting on and the details of this are below. Hope you enjoy the read and that you are able to free up enough time to do this amazing cycling journey through the UK.
There is lots of other info that we will include in the book as we simply did not have the time each day to write everything about the daily rides. Believe me it was very difficult just to find the time to keep the emails flowing back to South Africa after several hours in the saddle each day.
ROY & MAGGIE’S CHALLENGE (Lands End to John O’Groats)
Day 1 – 2 September (Lands End to Bodmin)
Woke up to a very grey and miserable morning into light rain and mist! What a start! We assembled for breakfast which was very hearty. We were given a map of the day’s ride together with a briefing of what to expect. We were also given a Garmin which attached to our bikes with the route marked out so we could see where we were going as we rode.
We eventually left at 8.25 am from the hotel and rode down to Lands End in the rain, which got harder and harder. The thought of riding for 130kms in the rain was very daunting. Since we had been in Lands End the day before for a visit we did not hang about as it was cold and miserable.
Let the ride begin we said.
Well words cannot describe the shock we got with the terrain. Boy oh boy, Cornwall is very very hilly, so much so that by the end of the day we had pushed our bikes up 10 hills. The sad thing was that we could not really see the countryside because of the rain and mist. The route chosen was mainly along small roads, and beautiful tree lined lanes. It was in the lanes that we experienced the hills. Short, sharp and steep. The group soon broke up with Maggie and me at the back. The average age of the other 6 riders is around 35 years old so we are the oldest by 25 years!! One of the guides called Nick joined us and it was unfortunate that we took a wrong turning which lead to us getting lost! Although we had the Garmin we battled to get back on the route which resulted in us riding an extra 13kms which we really did not need. The last 20kms were really tough as by then we were nearly at our limits. We eventually found the hotel at 7.35pm!! We were totally exhausted. We both agreed that we had never experienced fatigue as bad. I felt dazed and did not want to talk; I just needed time to recover. Maggie seemed to be stronger! Anyway, after a good shower/bath we went to dinner with the group. We were pleased to hear that they too found the ride very very tough. On a scale of 1-5 we rated it 5. After dinner we all went straight to bed in total exhaustion. Although we fell asleep quickly we both woke up during the night. When I was lying awake, I could estimate my heart rate at least 100 or more which showed the body had taken a lot of punishment.
The realisation of what we have taken on has hit us both, but we are determined to complete the route. We rode 138kms and were in the saddle for 8 1/2 hours. Average speed of 16.5kmph. We stayed in Bodmin in a lovely hotel; hopefully the others will be just as good.
Day 2 – 3 September (Bodmin to Tiverton)
Woke up to a very different day, lovely sunshine and clear skies. What a relief. Our legs told the story of the first day, heavy and stiff.
After breakfast, we set off at 9.00am for another 130km of riding to a town called Tiverton.
We decided to ride slowly to start to give our legs a chance to realize that they had work ahead of them. After about 10kms we settled down and were able to enjoy the wonderful scenery, which is mainly farmland which looks like a patchwork quilt. Once again the hills were endless. I reckoned that there must be a hill in about every kilometer which seemed too many! On this occasion the group was a little more together, but we were soon left behind. We eventually came to the moors, which are amazing. Huge open areas of beautiful grass littered with hundreds of sheep. It was an old airfield which I don’t think is used now, particularly because of the sheep!! Although we did ride through a number of lanes and along small roads, we had more open roads which helped our speed. We stopped for tea and biscuits in a beautiful old town called Okehampton which had a castle still intact.
After tea the terrain started to change as we entered Devon. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous with lots of rivers along the valleys. Being on our own has certain advantages in that we were able to stop when we felt like it. Also we could ride at our pace without the pressure of having to keep up with the young ones! The hills became longer and less steep than the first day, but there were loads of them.
We could feel fatigue starting to set in at around 100kms and our backsides were starting to hurt. According to the profile of the ride there was a lot of downhill towards the end. Well after climbing to what felt like the top of England we did hit the flatter areas. With only 10kms to go we came upon a long and fast descent which was exhilarating. Top speed of 66kmphs! Our delight was short lived as there was a sting in the tail. A long climb back up for about 2kms and then another fast descent to the town of Tiverton where we were booked in at the Best Western Hotel. Lovely rooms.
We enjoyed a good dinner of cod and chips laced with beer and wine. Why not, after all? We had ridden 130kms and had spent 7 hours, 52 minutes in the saddle! Average speed 16,8kmph about the same as day 1.
Day 3 – 4 September (Tiverton to Wells)
We both had a restless night which left us tired, when we got up. We both noticed that our heart rates were elevated, mine much higher than Maggie’s. Unfortunately for me I woke up not feeling too good plus my left Achilles tendon was very swollen.
Anyway, we went to breakfast and enjoyed a good meal which is the basis for energy for the day. Eating whilst riding for such long distances is critical.
One of the guys, Jason is a pharmacist from Australia and he felt I should give today’s ride a miss. He said I was probably very fatigued and dehydrated. I just could not bring myself to getting in the van and not complete the challenge, so I decided to drink a whole bottle of water plus re-hydrate and ride for 10kms to see how I felt. We set off around 9am to very overcast sky plus a chill in the air which required us to wear jackets.
The first 10kms was spent riding alongside a lovely river where the road went through this magnificent canopy of trees. The terrain was very kind and I started to feel better. We met up with the couple from Scotland when we left Lands End who are riding to John O’Groats as well. They are riding on a tandem and carrying all their own luggage!! They are doing a different course to us but the distance is the same!
Today’s ride is not as long as the previous two days but nevertheless it will be 95kms. As usual we were at the back but we prefer it and once I started feeling better the ride became more enjoyable.
We soon crossed into Somerset where the terrain is much easier on the legs. The roads are good and the drivers really are a pleasure. Obviously they have a culture of respect for cyclists. Thank goodness.
It is amazing how quickly time passes on a bike and it wasn’t long before we arrived at the tea break in a tiny town called Wiveliscombe. The couple on the tandem joined us for tea and cake.
For the next two hours we rode gently through some really stunning scenery. Unfortunately for us our camera has died on us due to water getting in on the first day. We are going to have to rely on the others to share their photos. We stopped for lunch in a town called North Curry in a pub called the Bird in Hand. Really old pub and most delightful. Pity I couldn’t have a beer! After lunch we only had 40kms to go which although long, gave us high spirits knowing that we could reach our destination around 4 pm instead of 7.30 pm as per the two previous days.
We eventually arrived in Wells and are staying in a B&B outside the town.
There is a well known and famous cathedral in Wells which we can see from our B&B. We gave our land lady a pile of washing and then spent 2 long overdue hours sleeping in my case and just relaxing.
It is now 7.15pm and Maggie is pushing me to finish as we have to meet the group in a pub down the road for dinner.
Cheers for now.
Day 4 – 5 September (Wells to Hereford)
Here is a transcript of the ride we undertook as written by the organizers.
“Leaving Wells this morning we ride to the village of Cheddar where we will ride through the famous Cheddar Gorge, the largest and most impressive gorge in the UK. Navigating carefully to avoid the major roads connecting the larger towns and cities of the area we then wind our way northwards into southern Wales crossing the River Severn via the cycleway on the famous Severn bridge. Once beyond Chepstow we rejoin country lanes and minor roads and continue the journey through the delightful countryside of the Wye Valley, passing Monmouth and on to our target destination and accommodation in Hereford.”
Back to my words!!
The day started with clear skies with a chilly breeze so we had to wear jackets especially for the gorge area.
Wow, what a quaint little town Cheddar is. So sorry we did not have a camera as the gorge scenery is really breathtaking.
The climb through the gorge was too steep for us to ride so we pushed, but at least we got to see the scenery.
One of our riders called Jonathon got an infection in his eye, which really needed urgent attention. He gallantly rode on with virtually one eye to the Eye Hospital in Bristol, where he waited 5 hours to be seen by a specialist. We only found out the next day that he and Peter, one of our guides rode from Bristol to Hereford virtually in the dark, only arriving at 10pm at the hotel. Now that’s Brit guts for you. He works for the BBC and is a really nice guy. That’s commitment for you! We made it through Bristol which is a very big city with lots of traffic. Quite intimidating. We had lunch on the Downs at a park café. Unfortunately the wind picked up and the riding became much harder.
Once we crossed the Severn Bridge the guys split up and Maggie and I fell to the back. We rode through the Wye Valley which is really special, as the road follows the river Wye for miles and miles through a forest of trees.
We came across Tintern Abbey which is in ruin, but spectacular. The town itself is also very quaint.
The last 30 kms of our ride to Hereford was hell, so many hills and strong winds into us. Unfortunately we had lost contact with the support vehicle and soon started to suffer from lack of food. Once you get to “bonk” on a ride you become irritable aggressive and unpleasant. Fortunately the van arrived about 10kms from the finish and we were able to replenish ourselves. Bananas are the best food for energy and recovery.
After 7 hrs 47mins in the saddle we finally arrived at our hotel in Hereford at 7pm having clocked up 132kms at an average speed of 16,9kph. My top speed down a very steep hill was 74.9kms!! Maggie and I decided that we wanted to have dinner on our own, which we did. She had sea bass and I had salmon. Delicious.
Unfortunately we need all the sleep we can get so off to bed we went with full tummies and very tired bodies.
Day 5 – 6 September (Hereford to Ironbridge)
“Back in the saddle once more, today we ride through the small village of Heredfordshire and Worcestershire. We head on up through the market town of Leominster, the site of the Battle of Llanilieni, the first battle between the Normans and the Welsh way back in 1052. Next stop is Shropshire, historic Ludlow with its wonderful black and white timbered buildings and ancient raised castle. We need to keep the old legs spinning a little more as we head through more picturesque towns and villages, such as Much Wenlock as we head for our finish in Ironbridge on the outskirts of Telford”.
Another lovely morning greeted us and we soon set off after breakfast. Maggie and I asked if we could go ahead, which we did. Unfortunately we stopped 3 times to adjust my saddle, as I am having problems with sores on my backside. Although I have managed to buy a saddle cover to provide padding, the damage had already been done and now I need for the sores to heal. Maggie is also having some discomfort. Anyway, we peddled on and on until Leominster, where we found a good bike shop and we bought a saddle cover for Maggie. Now we both could ride in “comfort” so to speak.
We joined the group for lunch in Ludlow in the public park below the castle. We had a lovely picnic lunch put together by our tour guides Peter and Nick who really work hard for us! Nothing is too much trouble. I could easily have fallen asleep on the grass so Maggie would only allow me to sit down!! Nevertheless I have been known to sleep anywhere!
After lunch we set off on our own again for the remaining 45kms to our destination. Just as we were leaving the town we came across another bike shop and I decided to investigate whether they could change my bike gearing to help me on the hills. Fortunately they had just what I needed, which they fitted in 10mins and off we went 91 Pounds lighter!!
The rest of the journey was uneventful except for our sore backsides. We decided to stop and give them a rest every 10kms, which also helps with the mental side of cycling long distances. We eventually arrived at Ironbridge where we had to drop down a hugely steep hill to the town itself. WOW! What a lovely little town right on the river with rows of shops, cafes, pubs and the like.
We rode over the Iron Bridge and down to our Best Western hotel also on the river. Lovely charming hotel designed as a village itself. Very clever architecture. Since we had arrived at 5pm we had a chance to relax before joining the others for dinner at the White Swan pub. We had a jovial dinner as we were not as tired as the previous day, but soon after dinner plus beers and wine we were off to bed at 9.45pm.
Hereford to Ironbridge – 89kms, 4 hrs 59mins. Ave 17.8kph.
Day 6 – 7 September (Ironbridge – Bolton)
“Riding along the small country lanes of Shropshire countryside we head this morning for the home of gingerbread “Market Drayton” notable for its ancient market place and half-timbered buildings. A few miles further on and we enter Cheshire on our way to the Roman town of Nantwich. From here our route takes us on a combination of minor and B roads (with occasional and brief sections of A road) via Middlewich, Knutsford and Leigh before eventually reaching our destination on the outskirts of Bolton. Welcome to the north of England, its “right and proper” up here and you’re going to love the next few days.”
Today’s ride is the longest of the tour, but not the toughest according to our tour guide.
The start out of Ironbridge was a very long and gradual climb with some steep sections which required us to push – AGAIN. We have almost worn our cleats out and will soon have to change them because they are not designed for walking long distances!!
Once over the climb we were confronted with a rolling terrain with no more hills of any consequence – hooray! A chance to give the legs a break.
We stopped for tea, Maggie and I, at a road side café to truckers just for the experience. Unfortunately after ordering and paying for our food it had not arrived after 30 minutes, so we had to leave without eating anything. There were just too many customers for the lady to deal with. Oh well, such is life.
This delay caused us to miss the tea stop at Audlem which was very disappointing as we were in need of refreshments. Anyway we rode on a bit further and found a delightful pub where we stopped for our lunch.
After lunch the ride was pretty uneventful as the scenery was not that good, plus we started experiencing very busy roads, especially the 3 sections on the A road. Although the trucks were fantastic, it was still a bit nerve wracking being passed by so many cars and trucks.
We finally caught up with the support van and were treated to some refreshments by the ever cheerful Nick.
The last 10kms were not that good as we started hitting the home going traffic which got steadily worse as we got into Bolton. Anyway we finally arrived at the hotel at 6.10pm after 7 hrs 23mins in the saddle. Unfortunately I have got splits in my skin around you know where, which is proving very painful when riding.
We enjoyed Shepherds pie for dinner washed down with a beer and some wine. Once again off to bed to get a good night sleep.
Ironbridge to Bolton – 138kms, 7 hrs 23mins, 18.6kph ave.
Day 7 – 8 September (Bolton to Kirkby-Lonsdale)
“Taking our ride through 3 counties, starting out from Bolton and leaving Greater Manchester behind us entering Lancashire just a few miles south of Chorley. Bypassing the bigger towns and staying clear of the busiest roads we carry on northwards. Things quieten down again as we enter North Yorkshire, taking in the villages of Newton and High Bentham along the way. After 7 days on the saddle and just over 500 miles we reach the little village of Barbon in the South Lake District”
Although the route today is one of the shortest, we were warned that it would be as tough as the first day!!
Once we had ridden past Blackburn the scenery stared to change to grasslands. The hills started to come thick and fast and our average speed started to drop. To put the meaning of average speed into perspective, when we ride the Argus or the Amashova our average speed is around 25kph whereas today’s ride we finished at an average of only 16.1kph. This challenge is really much more than we thought it would be. It makes the ride we did from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in 2003 look easy.
The scenery was really quite spectacular with the Yorkshire Dales and the small mountains on either side of the road.
The highlight was our ride through the Yorkshire Dales which was really beautiful. It reminded us a bit of the berg, but more spectacular.
Before we entered the Dales we stopped in a place called Sladeburn where all the bikers come to meet. The car park was full of them with all sorts of bikes on display. They have a lovely café which serves amazing food run by a man and his wife. We were told to buy their special ice cream called a 99er. What a treat, we really enjoyed them.
Once we were deep into the Dales we came across a serious climb from the river to the top of the Dales. We could see cars winding their way up and we knew that’s where we had to go!! We stopped a few times to admire the view and of course to rest. The Dales were covered with sheep, and it was so quiet that you gained the impression that the sheep owned the area as it was only them that were roaming the hills. This area is particularly popular with walkers of which there were plenty in the UK. In fact it is a large part of life for the locals and you often see them walking all over the place. It’s a great pity that we are not able to walk in safety like them.
Once over the Dales we sped down the hills and managed to make up time. By now we were very tired and our rear ends were hurting terribly. You can never get comfortable for long in any position so as a consequence you have to keep on changing your seating position.
The last 10kms were mainly easy except for our fatigue. We finally arrived at the Pheasant Inn which had been recently renovated which was very lovely and homely with a lovely pub! The new owners were most obliging and nothing was too much trouble. Not all establishments have laundry facilities which is a problem for cyclists as we need to change every day. Our hostess offered to do our laundry and we gladly accepted. She refused to charge us and suggested we make a donation to the Guide Dog Association for which she has a collection box in the Inn.
We had a most enjoyable dinner together with beer and some wine. The group gets on so well and even though we are 25 years older they treat us the same. The two guides, Peter and Nick are particularly good at looking after us. I let my hair down a bit by having 3 pints and 2 glasses of red wine, which made me rather tipsy!! Maggie was more careful.
Anyway it helped to make me sleep!! Bolton to Kirkby-Lonsdale. 105kms, 6 hrs 30mins, 16.1kph ave. Day 8 – 9 September (Kirkby-Lonsdale to Talkin/Holbankgate)
“With the Cumbria mountains and the Lake District to the West and the Yorkshire Dales to the east, its difficult to think of a better place to start a days riding. The route today, which for the main part is in Cumbria, is as dramatic as it is rugged, as we press on along deserted roads through villages and towns such as Orten, Longwathby and finally Talkin. Feast yourselves this evening on Cumberland sausages and sticky toffee pudding, we are passed the half way mark and tomorrow we are going to Scotland”.
Another beautiful crisp and sunny morning with no wind. Maggie and I set off first again which seems to help with the tea stops as we don’t fall back too far – at least that’s the theory.
The ride from the start for the next 20kms or so, was the best of the tour. The scenery is jus awesome and the clever use of the small roads and lanes makes riding so pleasurable. We both feel so blessed that we are able to do this challenge together and to enjoy how really beautiful England is. We have seen the country from a totally different perspective and I must say we like the lifestyle.
We stopped for tea at Orten which is a sad village because so many industries have closed and people have had to leave to get jobs elsewhere. In Orten they have a hotel which is called a temperance hotel which Jonathon, our man from the BBC, says does not serve alcohol. Good thing we won’t be staying there. I have developed a liking for small pork pies which is now becoming a standing joke. I stuff them in my riding jersey in case I get hungry along the way. Which I do!
After tea we pedaled on through even more beautiful scenery. Unfortunately the hills were ever present but we seemed to be managing better now that we have covered over 500 miles. We have worn out a set of cleats and if we encounter more steep hills in Scotland we may have to buy more.
We stopped for lunch in Langwathby in a public park under trees. Nick provided us with an awesome selection of food which we tucked into with much gusto.
After lunch we only had 32kms to ride to our next destination which is less than our normal morning training ride, so we felt confident that we would finish before 4pm, which I am proud to say we did. The last 15kms were undulating with small hills which allowed us to ride within ourselves and a lot quicker. But just as we got within 4kms from the end, there was a sting in the tail with some final hills to climb. Needless to say we were relieved to arrive at the Belted Will Inn just outside Brampton. Kirkby-Lonsdale to Talkin/Holbankgate. 95kms, 5hrs 26mins, ave 17.5kph Day 9 – 10 September (Talkin to Peebles)
“Weaving our way through more remote country lanes we make our way to the Scottish/English border. A few miles north of the border we arrive in Langholm where we pick up the B709. Navigation today is easier than usual since we stay on the B709 for most of the day, all the way to Traquair. At Traquair we head off down the country lanes and into Peebles – a great example of a Scottish border town.”
When we woke up we both felt very tired and in fact I went into decline quite quickly in terms of enthusiasm. I just did not feel like riding 120kms in a cold and wet day.
Anyway no chance of giving up. We left the inn and set off for Longtown, some 22kms away to buy shoe covers and new cleats. I was particularly slow and Maggie kept on having to slow down for me. The breakfast was not sitting well with me which made the effort that much greater, plus the drizzling rain was dampening my spirits. Maggie did not seem to mind the rain and as is usual for her she never complains.
We stopped at Longtown at a good bike shop where we purchased what we needed and soon set off. The shoe covers are great as they help to keep your feet dry and warm.
Just before we reached the Scottish border disaster struck. A car coming from behind us started breaking heavily to avoid us and swerved into the oncoming lane and collided with a car coming the other way. Death touched our shoulders in that split second. I went over to assist the lady, who luckily was not hurt but shaking like crazy. She kept saying “it was her fault and how sorry she was” The other car spun off the road and landed in a ditch backwards. Fortunately they too were not hurt. Both cars very badly damaged. It was indeed fortunate that we were riding alone because if we had been a group of 7 in single file the likelihood of being knocked over would have been greater because the oncoming could have wiped us out. A very scary experience. The police arrived and we gave our name, etc, and soon set off very gingerly and shaken up. Unfortunately we had to ride on the same busy road for another 5kms before turning off onto a minor road.
We stopped for tea and biscuits in a lovely café in Langholm and the break was just what we needed. We recounted our experience to the others which helped to calm us down. After tea we set off for the lunch stop at Eskdalemuir, some 40kms further on.
Unfortunately the weather started to get worse and very soon we were riding in rain. The temperature started to drop and we became about our ability to stay warm.
We arrived at the lunch stop which is a Tibetan temple where we were able to get something to eat and change our clothes. Shortly after leaving the lunch stop the rain started to become harder and harder. Eventually we were riding in torrential rain and we had to find refuge somewhere. Luckily for Maggie, Nick and me we came across a farm and we rode in and took shelter in the barn. The dogs went crazy and soon the farmer appeared. He was very cheerful and quite happy for us to use his barn. Eventually his wife joined us and we had a lovely chat. We decided that we had to press on, so we ventured out into the rain by which time it was abating. The three of us rode on in silence getting colder by the minute. Luckily we came upon our support van and Peter advised us to take shelter in a hut in a village up the road, which we gladly did. One of the other riders, Jason, was already there warming himself by the fire as he had contracted hyperthermia, but the landlord soon dried his clothes as well as ours. We enjoyed tea and sweet biscuits and were soon back to normal. Would you believe it, the rain stopped and the sun came out! We took advantage of the improved weather and set off for Peebles as fast as we could. It was a tough ride to Peebles and we arrived in the town just as the town clock chimed 6 o’ clock. Whew, what a day. Talkin to Peebles. 121kms, 6hrs 29mins, ave 18.6kph
Day 10 – 11 September (Peebles to Perth)
“Moving on from Peebles we head for Edinburgh. It’s impossible to avoid Edinburgh’s traffic completely, but our route will mainly steer clear of the city’s busiest roads. Once out of town we cycle over to Firth of Forth across the Forth Road Bridge and enter the Kingdom of Fife. It’s not long before we rejoin some quieter roads, passing through Kinross and heading for Perth for the night”.
The tour guide called Nick, who we really liked had to leave us and he was replaced by Les, a much older but experienced cycling guide. It was sad to say goodbye to Nick as he had been particularly helpful to us.
The ride to Edinburgh was pretty uneventful except for the scenery which was beautiful. The weather was very changeable and there was a fear that we might encounter rain.
Once we arrived in Edinburgh the fun started as we weaved our way through little lanes in the city, along tram lines and busy areas generally. We rode as a group as it would have been easy to get lost. Eventually we found the cycling route system, which is a system put in place especially for cyclists. It is truly amazing what they have created, it was a lovely experience as Edinburgh is a very cycling friendly city.
Once we were out of Edinburgh we soon arrived at Queensferry at the Forth Road Bride where we stopped for lunch. Wow, the two bridges are something to see – one is for trains and the other for cars and cyclists.
The weather started to get gloomy as we ate our lunch and we could feel the temperature dropping. We were advised to buy overpants as the rain would be regular. Les was given money and off he went. I needed a battery for my cyclometer as well.
The ride over the bridge was unreal. It was so high and you could feel the bridge moving. A real engineering masterpiece. Maggie was not comfortable riding over the bridge as the wind was buffeting her. The group was broken up by this time and we spent the next few hours riding at our own pace and enjoying the scenery while we could. We decided to stop at Kinross to get something to eat and drink, which we did in a pub in the town.
After our tea we were soon back on the road but we over looked a turning and went off the route, resulting in our having to back track. Luckily it was only about 1 km extra. The balance of the route to Perth was relatively flat with some hills thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately we had to stop again for a break as we were both starting to tire. We took shelter in a bus shelter and enjoyed a small break.
We eventually arrived in Perth after 6pm and must say we were pleased to get off the bikes. We stayed in a B&B just outside town from where we had to walk to the Italian restaurant for dinner. We had a good dinner and I even tried an Italian beer called Moretti, which was very good. After dinner we strolled back to the B&B and were soon in bed. Another day gone.
Peebles to Perth. 123kms, battery flat, no other recordings.
Day 11 – 12 September (Perth to Ballater)
“Leaving Perth we pass Scone Palace and Meckliar Beech Hedge on the way to Blairgowrie. Once beyond Blairgowrie surrounded by rolling fields famed for their raspberries and overlooked by hills and mountains, with climbing legs at the ready, we head due north to Braemar for a strenuous journey through some of the most wild and remote territory of our tour. It’s a regal finish today as we ride along the banks of the Dee to Balmoral Castle. Onwards to Ballater at last we reach the real Scottish Highlands.”
We left Perth under gloomy conditions and in the morning traffic. Once again we enjoyed cycle lanes to get us safely through the town and out into the country. The ride to Blairgowrie was quite hard as it was a steady climb all the way interspersed with hills we could not make and had to walk. Once through Blairgowrie the climbing started to get more serious but at least the weather was holding off and the wind was light.
We fell quite far behind the group so Peter suggested that we stop at the Glenshee Hotel and have our lunch rather than riding to the ski station summit. We gladly agreed, and stopped at the Hotel with the most amazing huge fireplace with a fire roaring. Oh how we wished we could just stay there all afternoon.
Anyway, we had to get on, and so we rejoined the route where the temperature was 71dF, but windy. We soldiered on for the next 7kms until we came to the last section to the ski station which was just too steep for us to ride. We have found that we can manage a gradient up to 9/10% but once it rises above that we have to walk. The gradient here was 12% for 2kms. Walking does not do my tight and damaged Achilles tendons any good and I was now starting to limp. They have been swollen for a while but are getting worse. The push up the hill was very tiring and the temperature was starting to drop very quickly. By the time we got to the summit it had dropped 25dF!! The wind was so severe and it was not a place to linger. Fortunately Les was at the top and we were able to put more layers of clothes on. As we set off down the other side of the mountain we were met by even stronger winds, so much so that we could only muster a speed of 21kph when normally we could reach at least 80kph. The ride to Braemar can best be described as awful!! The wind and rain was just too much. We decided to push on as best we could and soon got some shelter through the forests lining the river. We tried to ride for 10kms and then rest for 2mins which seemed to help us. The ride alongside the river was truly very beautiful. We turned off the road and came across Balmoral Castle where the Royal family was in residence. Unfortunately we could not see much but nonetheless we did go past it! The next hour was spent riding through the Royal/Crown forests and was quite pleasant other than for the fact that we both needed to get off the bike as we were really tired. There is no doubt that the past days have taken their toll on us and we are both in need of a rest.
We finally arrived at our guesthouse and were greeted by Cathy, a lovely warm and friendly person. She asked if we needed anything and I said “yes please, a beer would be nice”. She duly produced a beer which I drank in front of a lovely fire. Bliss!
We both needed to get warm as soon as possible, and therefore we showered and got into bed! No peace for the wicked, we were soon up again and had to walk to the restaurant. By now I was limping a lot and decided that I needed to catch a taxi back after dinner.
The restaurant was rather sparse with odd beers which I had not heard of. Anyway I had a venison pie and Maggie had salmon which was very enjoyable. Max and I shared a bottle of red wine which was rather nice.
Les offered to fetch the van and give us a lift back to the guesthouse, which we very gladly accepted. Very thoughtful of him.
Once back at the guesthouse we were soon in bed and fell asleep within no time. Only 3 rides left, but the weather forecast is not good.
Perth to Ballater. 117kms
Day 12 – 13 September (Ballater to Inverness)
“Don’t forget to raise your eyes from the tarmac as we move on from Ballater this morning, this is spectacular countryside so make sure you take it all in. Beyond Granton-on-Spey and into exposed moorland wilderness we press on through the villages Dava and Dulcie and pass by Culloden battlefields, the site of the last battle fought on British soil. A few miles up the road and we arrive in Inverness where we end our day.”
We woke up to very grey clouds, a light drizzle but windy. We were warned by the tour guides that the ride today would be very tough especially as we had to climb to the top of yet another ski station. Oh boy, how right they were. We started climbing immediately we left Ballater and continued to climb for a long time. The wind was getting stronger by the minute and we were advised that two hurricanes were expected from America. The first one arrived just as we were climbing to Cock Bridge which is situated in the valley. Once we reached the top we rode very gingerly down the side with gale force winds hitting us from the side which caused our bikes to be blown all over the place. Because our bikes are made of carbon fibre they are light and very susceptible to strong winds. Once we reached Cock Bridge we turned left straight into a head wind which reduced our speed to 7kph! We really started to panic because our average speed was coming down with every kilometer. After Cock Bridge we started to climb a very steep section where the gradient was 20%. Once again we had to get off and push. My right Achilles was very sore and each step was quite painful. Almost immediately after overcoming the climb we looked up in horror to the next steep 20% gradient to the ski station, which was 2kms long. I knew that if I had to walk the whole distance it was likely that my Achilles would give in plus we were getting progressively colder and we were losing time making our chances of finishing in the light very tight. Les advised us to get in the van and take a ride to the ski station rather than risk further injury and possible hyperthermia. Obviously we did not want to get in the van but quite frankly we had no choice. We were both very disappointed but took comfort in the fact that we had ridden 13kms further on the first day when we went off the route.
Les dropped us at the ski station and we decided to go in for food and hot drinks to warm us up. After choosing our food we proceeded to pay only to find that the money Maggie was carrying, together with the credit card, had gone missing! We came to the conclusion that the bag must have fallen out when she was removing food whilst cycling. A bad mistake. We put the food back and left the ski station very dejected and miserable. I felt sorry for Maggie as she felt it was her fault.
After proceeding down the other side of the mountain, Maggie suddenly called out to me to stop. She had a huge smile on her face as she had found the money at the bottom of her over pants. Oh boy, were we relieved! We decided to peddle on to Tomintoul. Once we got to Tomintoul we went into an old fire station that had been converted to a café. I had 2 large pancakes with maple syrup and Maggie had a fruit scone plus tea and coffee. What a relief, but we were still cold. What I did not know at the time is that when we stop in cold conditions you must remove some layers of clothing to allow the body to adjust to the warmer temperature inside, and then when you go out into the cold you put the same wet clothes on again. Because we were so far behind schedule we decided not to linger too long and we soon set off for the next milestone which was Granton-on-Spey. Fortunately the rain was not belting down but the wind was horrendous. We battled on to Granton-on-Spey and stopped for lunch in a little coffee shop. Whilst we were eating we consulted our map and came to the conclusion that at our present average speed of only 12kms an hour we would not make it. We were only half way which meant we still had 60kms to ride and it was already 3.15pm. Once again we had no choice but to press on as Les had gone to assist the others, who were much further up the route. Once again we joined the route and decided to give it our best shot. Although we had only covered half the distance we were already very tired. Fighting the wind had taken its toll on the both of us, but Maggie seemed to be in better shape than me. Gee, she is amazing.
Once we got over the moors the terrain flattened out and in fact there were some very fast descents which we took full advantage of. We got so carried away with our speed that we missed the turning to Dulcie and it was only when I noticed that the Garmin was indicating that we had gone off the route. Fortunately we found a connecting road which took us back on the route, but we had ridden 7kms further and lost even more time. We had to phone for back up as we had both run out of water and there were no rivers to collect water from. Eventually Les caught up with us and we refilled our water bottles and took on more food. We worked it out that given the terrible conditions we would take at least 2 and a half hours to get to the finish. We put our heads down and rode as hard as we could but our backsides were hurting so much that we had to stop regularly to have a bum rest, even though we had 2 pairs of riding pants on each. We were advised to take the gel seat covers off and rather wear 2 pairs of riding pants instead. It did make a difference, but not totally.
It was quite amazing how much time we made up but the light was fading fast. Fortunately there were no big hills and we able to get our speed up despite the wind. With less than 8kms to go Les stopped us and said that we should get in the van as it is illegal to ride without lights. I told him that we would take our chances and we carried on relentlessly.
At 7.34pm we arrived at the B&B in Inverness after 8 hours and 8 minutes in the saddle, at an average speed of only 15kms and hour. Our worst speed by far. By the time we got in the rest of the group had gone for dinner. We decided to give dinner a miss and rather get as much rest as possible. We had a lovely hot shower and were in bed by 8.15pm. We discussed our day and agreed that if the wind did not abate by the next morning we may not be able to continue as the ride for the following day was also going to be very tough. We had a piece of shortbread each and went to sleep. Was this the turning point of the ride for us to give up or would we be able to soldier on? Our worst day by far.
Ballater to Inverness – 123 kms
Day 13 – 14 September (Inverness to Altnaharra)
“Back in the saddle, the challenge for this morning is to cross the Black Isle, the jagged peninsular separating Inverness and Dingwall. Once over the Cromarty Firth its one road all the way to Bonar Bridge where we meet Dornorch Firth and then its northwards past Inveran and the falls of Shin to Lairg. The last stretch of the day passes the wildest part of the trip, there are few houses to be seen but there is one pub, the Crask Inn before we drop down to the tiny village of Altnaharra on the shore of Lock Naver”.
When we woke up we immediately checked the weather. Our worst fears were realized. The wind was blowing and there was rain about. We turned the TV on to check the weather forecast which showed that the second hurricane was causing havoc. We went down to breakfast feeling very sorry for ourselves but surprisingly soon cheered up. Peter decided to ride with us which is just as well because getting out of Inverness was quite tricky. We made our way through the morning traffic and were soon on the bridge over the Beauly Firth where the wind was blowing a gale. Once over the bridge we rode next to the firth right into a head wind. It was a pity really because the ride along the cycle track/lanes was very beautiful but the wind was spoiling the experience. We soon joined the road at Ord and made our way to Dingwall. We stopped at Dingwall for tea which was very welcome. After tea we rode for a long way next to the Cromarty Firth. In this section the wind was basically slightly behind us which helped a lot. At Alness we turned left and headed for Lairg. The weather just got worse and worse and we did not have our overpants on so we got soaking wet. The lunch stop was scheduled for Bonar Bridge which seemed to be so far and we were getting very hungry. At one stage the wind was so strong that the rain turned into mini missiles, stinging our faces. We could see that the weather was in for the day and we just had to endure the terrible conditions. At long last we arrived at Bonar Bridge where the van was parked in a parking area. We wanted to change our wet clothes but as luck would have it our suitcase was at the bottom of the pile so we were unable to make the change. We enjoyed 2 large ham/beef rolls and a good size mug of tea. We were very surprised that we had in fact caught the second group and we exchanged our experiences of the morning ride. Despite the suffering we were all very cheerful and joking, mainly I think because we knew that after this ride we only had one more to do. The ride from Bonar Bridge to Lairg was tough but at least we got some shelter from the wind in the forests we rode through.
It was from Lairg to Altnaharra that the nightmare started. We were told that this stretch would be very hard going as it was open and barren and very wind swept. We will never forget this stretch, it was terrible. It reminded us of the Karroo in some ways, just more dramatic and with nobody living there. It was weird. Although the terrain was not hilly it was the wind that just kept on holding us back from getting up any kind of decent speed. Our average speed started to drop and we still had 40kms to ride to the end.
Although we were both very tired Maggie was in better shape than I was. At one stage I stopped my bike and told Maggie I simply could not go on. I was at my limit. She immediately encouraged me to eat an energy bar and said she would ride at the front to shield me from the wind. She also pointed out that stopping would not be a good idea as we would definitely become hypothermic. We agreed that we would ride for 1km at a time and rest for 1 min. Sounds crazy, but it helped. I remembered that there was a lonely pub called the Crask Inn somewhere along the route and I said we should at least get to that and reassess our position.
Les suddenly appeared in the van and he could see our condition and suggested we get in the van so that he could take us to the Crask Inn. We appreciated his concern, but we were not prepared to give up. I asked him if he knew how far the Crask Inn was and when he told us that it was only 4kms further on, we immediately decided to press on to it. It is impossible to describe our elation at arriving at the simple Crask Inn. As we arrived, three of the others were leaving. We went inside and were greeted by the landlord and 4 very burly farmers from the area. They were really nice guys and wanted to know all about our ride. We both agreed that it would have been nice to have stayed with them instead of facing the last 14kms. We had hot chocolate which was delicious and the fire in the hearth soon warmed us up. I am sure if ever we went back to the Crask Inn we would find the same farmers enjoying a pint or two. When we started to leave I shook all their hands and I was amazed at the size of one of them. Gee, they were big guys.
When we left the inn our spirits had been lifted and we knew that we would make it to Altnaharra. Fortunately the wind had dropped considerably and the rain had stopped as well. Another plus was the fact that the last 12kms was pretty much downhill which gave us the opportunity of going as fast as we could. The road surface was good and the ride to the finish was really great. It is amazing to think that at one stage I felt defeated, but here we were cracking on at speeds of 40 to 50kms an hour.
We finally arrived at the hotel, the one and only, and were indeed pleased to have made it. We booked in and were really impressed at the hotel, particularly the beautiful furnishings. Once in our room we removed all 5 layers of clothing all of which were wet. We then had the most lovely hot bath/shower and decided to reward ourselves with a beer and a glass of wine. We all gathered in the lounge where a fire was on the go. Sheer bliss – one ride to go! Dinner was very special. The hotel makes its money from salmon fishermen and deer hunters who come to the area. That explained the quality furnishings. Apparently Altnaharra is the coldest area in Scotland, where temperatures are known to go down to -29°C.
We sat down to a really fabulous meal with a number of bottles of wine. We did not care that we still had a day to go! We eventually went to bed after 10pm which was the latest by far. Before turning off the lights we resolved to finish our challenge, no matter what.
Inverness to Altnaharra. 128kms.
Day 14 – 15 September (Altnaharra to John O’Groats)
“A lovely route along Strath Naver takes us to the northern most shoreline of mainland Britain. A sharp change of direction at Betty Hill saves us from riding into the sea. We follow the coast road to Thurso, the Scottish mainlands most northerly town; an early Viking settlement named after Norse “god of thunder” Thor. And now we are on the home straight only 35 more kms and you have made it. Crack open the bubbly, congratulations are in order”.
The above description from the tour guide says it all. When we woke up the weather was showing promise of a good day. The wind was still blowing but not like the previous 2 days. At breakfast the maps were handed out and we were told that we should have the wind at our backs for virtually the whole day. What a relief. Everybody was noticeably more cheerful at breakfast and looking forward to completing the challenge. Maggie and I set off first and were soon riding next to the Lock Naver, which was extremely beautiful. The sun was just starting to come out and was shining on the water. The mountains surrounding the area were just stunning, particularly now that the rain and mist had gone. We were surprised at how strong we felt and it took the faster riders 27kms to catch us. We were enjoying ourselves for the first time. The tea break was scheduled at Betty Hill, a distance of +/- 32kms, which we seemed to reach in no time. We were surprised to see that we were able to join the entire group for tea, a first for us.
Leaving Betty Hill we turned right and proceeded to follow the coast with the wind behind us. The coast line is very dramatic with steep cliffs, beautiful clear water and lovely beaches. We were able to get our average speed right up and despite a number of hills that we encountered along the way we managed to keep our pace.
Unfortunately I had a tyre blow out which I could not repair as the tyre and tube needed to be changed. I was lucky it blew on a flat area and not as I was going down the hills at 60kms an hour. We had to phone for back up and we had to wait 45mins for Les to arrive with a new tube and tyre. Once the tyre was replaced we set off to Thurso where the terrain changed to almost flat and the ride to the finish at John O’Groats was exhilarating and emotional as we saw the rest of the group waiting for us at the hotel. They had agreed that they would all wait for us in order that we could ride to the actual finish as a group, just as we had started. We will never forget the experience of riding the last 1km together, it was just unbelievable. We reached the John O’Groats finish and we cheered and cheered with hugs all round and high fives. We took loads of photos and we drank a celebratory glass of champagne.
We returned to the hotel to get changed and were soon in the pub celebrating our success. It was hard to believe that we had finished the challenge and as I write this I still cannot quite believe it. We were indeed privileged to have been able to ride the Lands End to John O’Groats challenge, particularly at our age and as a married couple. I guess there are not many people who can boast of this achievement. We will never forget the experience.
The next day we travelled by bus to Inverness where we had to say goodbye to Craig, Karen, Jason, Peter and Les. We found it quite emotional even though we had only known them for 14 days. Max, Jonathon and the two of us were left to spend time in Inverness, waiting for our respective trains to depart. We walked around the town and finished up at a lovely pub, where we enjoyed beef and pork roasts for lunch. Eventually it was our turn to leave and we said goodbye to Max and Jonathon, which was also very emotional. We had built up a particularly good relationship with Max who had been so kind and caring towards us despite the fact that he was not much younger than us. In closing I will record the details of the group of the magnificent seven.
Roy and Maggie – 62 and 60 Max – 58 from Australia. Retired business man Jonathon – 48 from the UK. Editor at the BBC Jason – 34 from Australia. Pharmacist Craig – 34 from Australia. Sniper in the military Karen (girlfriend of Craig) – 33 from Australia. Office administrator
Average age – 47
Tour guides from Saddle Skedaddle – Peter Eagen, Nick Mitchell and Les Mitchell.
In all, we covered 1,630kms with approximately 100 hours in the saddle in our case, plus we rode almost 20kms extra through going off the route.
Would we do it again? Never, it was just so tough and much harder than we expected. The greatest benefit we got out of the tour was being able to do it together as a married couple. Maggie was amazing and I will always admire her for agreeing to join me and not to complain once, she seemed to have done it all for me. What more can I ask?
Altnaharra to John O Groats. 118kms. 5hrs 37mins